On 14th July 1917 a Commission of Enquiry was set up under the direction of the elderly Général Joseph Brugère. It was also announced by the French War Minister, Paul Painlevé, that Brugère would be assisted by two other senior officers ; who had not taken part in the offensive, Général Foch and Général Gouraud (though the latter had recently taken over one of the armies at the front).
Their objective was to :
Study the conditions under which the Offensive on the Aisne had been carried out between the 16th and 23rd April…without considering the operations that recommenced on the 30th April.
Whilst Général Joffre had been Commander in Chief he had maintained an attitude of no interference in the running of the war by civilians — especially politicians. With his removal and replacement by Nivelle the French government had attempted to institute some form of control over the running of the war. It could be argued that the experiment had back-fired in so much as when Nivelle offered his resignation when confronted by the doubts of the politicians over his offensive ; they didn’t take him up on the offer.
Following the catastrophe on the Chemin des Dames and the weeks of indiscipline shown by numerous regiments (whether they had been involved in the offensive or not, it should be added), the politicians in Paris were clamouring for heads to roll. Générals Mangin and Mazel were relieved of their commands but the question still remained as to what to do about Nivelle who had orchestrated the entire affair ?
Brugère’s name was mentioned as a possible member of the commission right from the word go. Whilst at 76 years of age he had not taken part in the war he had been shouting since its commencement for the chance to get back into action. The last person to turn him down for a position was, Nivelle !
Foch had been cast aside by the new Nivelle administration and in that light declared himself perhaps unsuitable therefore to judge the decisions made. That left Gouraud who had been in Morocco up until his move to the Fourth Army in June 1917.
The Commission could perhaps be better termed a Study Group rather than an Enquiry, for it had no power to suggest any form of sanctions against possible offenders. Its job was to interview those Generals involved and report on what they found. What the Commission certainly wasn’t, was any of the forms of enquiry laid down by military law with a view to finding fault and passing sentence on those found to be at fault.
The three generals had their hands tied, and were possibly glad to be so. They restricted themselves to their interviews as to what had happened at the front and more crucially what had been said at the meeting in Compiègne on the 6th April (the day Nivelle had offered his demission).
The interviews began and took much the same form throughout. The interviewee would come in and read out a prepared statement of what he had, or hadn’t done. A few questions would then be posed and so it continued General after General. Without any form of confrontation, between the various parties giving evidence, it was always going to be difficult for the three interviewers to grasp who was telling the truth, who was leaving out the bad bits and who was downright lying through his teeth. That Brugère had little idea as to what modern warfare entailed wouldn’t have helped him understand in any case.
As to the absolutely crucial meeting on the 6th April, no written account, whatsoever, had ever been made !
There was little argument that during the meeting at Compiègne all attending wanted to ensure that they were not caught napping by the Germans, as they had been at Verdun in February 1916. Whether or not Nivelle’s plan (as proposed at the time) would gain the crushing victory that he suggested was another matter. Nivelle offered his resignation — which was refused. That act, in itself, suggested to Nivelle that, despite all the doubts, he had been given full authority to act as he best saw fit.
That was not really the case but as lunch was calling, everybody retired in their separate directions without the crucial matter of the day being resolved.
In the end the Commission’s report on 4th October 1917 was every bit the sham that was not expected of it by Painlevé. The initial report insisted that no blame would be apportioned to anyone as that was not within its remit. There was even a suggestion that if the politicians had left Nivelle alone and allowed him to continue, the glorious victory might have been achieved.
As things happened, Painlevé fell from power on the 13th November and the new man at the helm, Clemenceau was far too astute to bring the report back into the limelight.
If the report was supposed to have shown the generals up as incompetent butchers of men then it failed in two respects. Firstly, the Commission never looked into the matter of casualties, once again, outside of what they had been asked to do : merely interview the generals. Secondly, the war was continued in much the same way as it had been. Attack !
The future Allied Commander in Chief, Général Foch had previously been an instructor who taught the idea of attacking to the utmost degree and applied that sentiment to every battle. When Foch sought out a general to lead his counter-offensive in July 1918, it was to Mangin that Foch turned.
Although Pétain may have tried to diminish the number of casualties, the reality of war, and in particular the mode of attack against a solid, protected defence, was invariably going to cause high losses.
The Battle of the Chemin des Dames was in many respects no more costly than others that had been fought (and proportionally less so than the Somme or Verdun) and whilst Clemenceau might have been correct when he said that : War was far too serious to be left to soldiers, he could have added that if the politicians didn’t know what they were about, it could be even worse.